NASA Hubble telescope captures smiling face in space

NASA image of star cluster discovered by Kepler

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Residing about 500 light years away, Kepler-186f resides within the hospitable zone of its orbit around its star, and could be a very strong candidate for having conditions suitable for extraterrestrial life. More critical, Kepler was an exoplanet-hunter, detecting several thousands of planets outside our solar system.

Kepler was originally positioned to watch 150,000 stars in a patch of sky within the constellation Cygnus. Before Kepler, we had discovered just a few hundred exoplanets, but the technology of the Kepler, allowed scientists to add more than 2,600 exoplanets to our databases.

The most recent data Kepler gathered revealed that between 20 and 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small planets, possibly rocky ones, similar in size to the Earth and located in the so-called "habitable zone".

It also found solar systems so busy with planets that even NASA admits our own inner solar system looks sparse in comparison.

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It's easy for a superstitious mind to jump to anxious conclusions from this week, after NASA announced the end of two long-running missions: the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope and the Dawn mission that visited the asteroid belt. TESS's observing pattern, rather than staring at a single part of the sky, will scan almost the entire sky with overlapping fields of view (much like the petals on a flower).Duration of TESS's observations on the celestial sphere, taking into account the overlap between sectors.(Graphic: Nasa) Given what we learned from Kepler, astronomers expect TESS to find thousands more planetary systems. That means they're located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water - a vital ingredient to life as we know it - might pool on the planet surface. "Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars".

But the mission was not without its hiccups - in 2013, mechanical failures stopped Kepler's observations. The second phase of Kepler's mission was called K2 and the discoveries in this extended mission further improved our understanding of planets and planetary systems.

"I'm excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler's results". "There were definitely challenges, but Kepler had an extremely talented team of scientists and engineers who overcame them". Many of these planets could be promising places for life.

The search for exoplanets has already been taken up by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April of this year (2018).

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